Rural Electric Coops Face Uncertainty With Prairie State Energy Campus Closure on the Table

By Benjamin Cox on July 23, 2021 at 8:47am

Illinois lawmakers are still debating a statewide energy proposal that would shutter the state’s coal-fired power plants by 2035. A local utility cooperative is asking its members to lobby lawmakers to keep it open.

Illinois Electric Cooperative has issued letters to their members asking to keep the plants open because they say it will cost utility rate payers more money and provide an unreliable electric grid of power.

IEC’s general manager Randy Long says it will also saddle the state with significant outstanding debt: “We believe it is probably going to reduce grid reliability and it’s going to cause good energy jobs to leave the State of Illinois along with the tax base to neighboring states and it’s going to increase our [utility] rates also. In 2035, the Prairie State plant will still have about $188 million worth of debt, and that is still going to have to be paid off. We’ll no longer be getting energy from that plant either, so we’ll have to replace that energy from another source. We are just very concerned about that – the increased costs to our members and also the reliability on the grid, which is really in the forefront after the blackouts we have just heard about in Texas and California recently.”

Long says that many of the state’s 25 not-for-profit electric cooperatives along with some municipalities owe shares in the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa, Illinois and would be stuck with the debt. The plant is currently the state’s largest coal-fired plant, which employs 650 staff and approximately 1,000 union contractors. According to the letter sent out to members, if the clean energy bill were to pass the General Assembly, cooperative members would see their utility bills increase between 20-25%.

State Senator Chris Belt told WCIA back in June that he’s pushing to delay the closure to 2050 to allow cooperatives and municipalities pay off the debt incurred in the facility.

Long says the grid reliability is the other troublesome point for cooperative members due to Nature’s unpredictability: “We support green energy, and we support the transition to green energy. I know here at Illinois Electric, ourselves, we own and operate a wind turbine in Pike County and also own a solar [farm] right here in Scott County that we operate, so we like renewables. Prairie Power also has some renewable assets. Our concern with that is that renewable assets are intermittent by nature. The sun’s not shining; the wind’s not blowing – you’re not getting anything from them. Where a power plant like Prairie State is what we would call dispatchable – it’s available to produce power 24/7. There are those times even when more and more renewables come online and are available, there are times due to their intermittent nature, that they are not available and there has to be these base-load dispatchable [power] plants in place to carry us through those times. Technology has not caught up with that yet. We like to say ‘don’t let the policy get ahead of technology.'”

The Prairie Power complex generated 12.9 million megawatts of power in 2019, which is enough to power 2.5 million homes in the state. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows Prairie State’s plant operates at a higher level of efficiency and creates more power per ton of coal than any other plant in the state.

Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers continue to talk behind the scenes on the fate of the plant in the Metro East as well as CWLP’s plant in Springfield.